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West Side Story at Bishopsgate Institute

29 June 2018 Emily May

As Toby Hine, Director of Bishopsgate Institute’s latest amateur production of West Side Story, states in the programme “putting on West Side Story is not a decision to be made lightly.” Originally created by musical theatre giants Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the Romeo and Juliet reimagining is one of the most revered musicals of all time, but Bishopsgate Institute tackle it with vivacious energy and attack, giving new life and interpretation to the now approximately 60-year-old musical.


 
Performed by a troupe of trained and untrained performers, it’s amazing to think this vibrant performance was put together between the actors’ day jobs. Digital marketers and Biology teachers by day, Jets and Sharks by night, the cast are a diverse mix of individuals who have embraced the challenge of West Side Story with ebullient enthusiasm and professionalism, to the extent that it’s difficult to discern – if you haven’t read the programme – whether the performance is indeed professional or not.
 


The standout feature that makes this production of West Side Story unique is the non-traditional staging. The audience line two sides of Bishopsgate Institutes Great Hall, with the performance happening in the rectangular space in the centre, a set-up which plunges spectators into the heart of the action and creates an immersive experience, especially for those at cabaret style seating on the front row, whose drinks tables become part of the set as performers jump on top of them to deliver lines and songs. They also acrobatically climb up and down two metal stair cases reminiscent of New York fire escapes, which are moveable, and particularly put to good use for the meeting of the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria.



The up-close and personal nature of the set up can at times feel a little too much, and make the audience consider that maybe you need the distance given by traditional proscenium staging in order to dilute the uber-dramatic and intentionally exaggerated art form of musical theatre. This is especially noticeable in romantic scenes where the ardent declarations of love performed with thespian commitment can feel slightly corny and cringe-worthy for “non-believers” - but this is musical theatre world crossed with a Shakespeare romance, what do you expect if not intense love at first sight, and numerous musical numbers to declare it? And anyway, the characters from the Jets and the Sharks lurking behind metal fences behind the audience’s raked seating for the duration of Maria and Tony’s love scenes create a constant ominous reminder of the feud that will eventually destroy their passion and dreams.

As well as the dark elements of the show (namely gang violence and loss) there are many humorous moments to balance out the sickly-sweet love affair, with comic songs such as Officer Krupke being standout moments, humorously reminding many of the teenage propensity to blame their upbringing, and puberty for their bad behaviour. However, in its position in the show after Riff’s death – in the film it is actually performed earlier by Russ Tamblyn as Riff – feels slightly ill timed, as comedy feels slightly incongruous with the recent deathly brawl between Riff and Bernardo.

 
The musicians are visible and not hidden away in an orchestra pit like in many traditional productions, which is refreshing as it emphasizes the importance of the symbiotic nature between the singers, dancers and musicians, most evident in classic numbers such as Mambo! and America. In such scenes, the space becomes a raucous hot bed of swirling couples, writhing against each other with full skirts flying and hips rolling to the sound of the sensual and screaming saxophone. Choreographic face offs between the Jets and the Sharks are also extremely exciting, as tight phalanxes of sensual women and peacocking men battle it out, pushing each-other back and forwards across the space. The heat is palpable and oozing off the performers… literally, don’t turn down the fan you’re offered at the beginning of the show, it’s not just to get you into the Latin flavour of the show, you need it to stay cool during the performance!
 
The choreography is to be commended as the performers interweave through the populated space with ease in a manner referencing traditional Latin dance styles. Sections of fight choreography are also praiseworthy, especially a brawl towards the beginning of the show where couples battle it out in perfect unison. An attempt at abstraction in Somewhere is less effective, as it is surprisingly not sung by the lead characters but members of the chorus, and couples in white twirl romantically in a dream like sequence that seems removed from the excellent narrative storytelling that precedes and succeeds it.
 
West Side Story is running until 1 July 2018 at Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London, EC2M 4QH
 
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